- By Thomas Weaver
Alumni brothers create innovative, inclusive community on a Vermont mountainside
By Thomas Weaver
Photographs by Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist ’09
Zeno Mountain Farm has a show to put on. Show time weeks away, the camp’s free-wheeling, collaborative style is on full display one July morning. Will Halby paces the front of the stage in the farm’s rustic performance space/barn, laptop balanced on his forearm as he writes a script on the fly. There is no shortage of help from the cast, with shouts of “What if you did this? How about we try it like this?” and so on.
As the actors—some with disabilities, some not, all working as a unified cast—begin to rehearse their lines, they are rewritten and refined. There’s rampant joking and teasing, the sort reserved for family or old friends. When it comes time to run through a musical number set to AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long,” Pete Halby, Will’s younger brother, plugs in his electric guitar and cranks out the power chords. The first run through is a bit stiff. Will hops up on the stage to show Jeremy Vest, a star of many Zeno shows, how he needs to heat up his dancing with some R-rated hip thrust. Paul Remy and Brian Novasad, two older men in wheelchairs, are also central to the scene. Will implores them to rock out, too. He gets in their faces: “This is your AC/DC moment! Don’t f*#k it up!” Everyone laughs hard.
When the show comes together in performance it will be classic Zeno. Live drama, films, athletic events, or the rolling pageants they annually create as part of Bristol, Vermont’s Fourth of July parade, the Zeno Mountain productions are funny, raggedly beautiful, moving for their spontaneity and joy in humanity.
“We think everything we do is enhanced because of the range of abilities and needs that exist in the groups we create,” Pete Halby says. “Sometimes society is like, ‘Oh, you’re helping those people; it’s going to be a less-than product.’ Actually, I think our art, our sports, our music, our theater, is enhanced. It flips it up.”
So, what exactly is Zeno Mountain Farm? Geographically, it’s three-hundred wooded acres in one of the most beautiful settings you’ll find in New England, halfway up the west side of the Appalachian Gap road with sweeping views of the Green Mountains and Champlain Valley. Programatically, it’s a series of arts- and sports-based camps, on the Zeno Mountain property and beyond, that bring together people with disabilities and those without in a seamless mix. There are not “counselors” and “clients.” No one pays to attend and no one is paid. Once a member of the Zeno family, always a member—participants are welcome to return every year. Conceptually, it’s about breaking down barriers between the disabled and abled while frankly acknowledging and celebrating differences and the opportunities to grow through mutual responsibility and support.
Zeno Mountain’s masterminds are UVM alumni brothers Will and Pete Halby and their wives, Vanessa and Ila. Will is a ’94 UVM alumnus with his degree in elementary and special education; Pete is Class of 1999, a sociology major. The brothers laugh that Pete inherited many of Will’s college friends who stuck around Burlington after graduation.
Both have the easy, affable manner of your coolest summer camp counselor—the guy who could play “Stairway” on guitar, kindle a fire in a downpour, identify every wildflower, and make you feel better about missing home. Tall and athletic, board shorts and threadbare t-shirts are their summer work uniforms. Pete is stubbled, favors a pair of Blundstone boots with no socks. Will is bearded, wears flip-flops and a trucker hat, has multiple tattoos, including a tiny smiley face on the stump of a toe he lost to a lawnmower in high school.
The brothers have worked together on Zeno Mountain since they purchased the property in 2008 and like-minded ventures that preceded it for years prior. Family and work are a tight knit. Pete, Ila, and their two children live at Zeno Mountain; Will, Vanessa, and their four children are at home just down the road in Bristol. Running Zeno Mountain and raising the kids is a juggling act shared by all.
Asked about the challenges of such a close work/family connection, Will is quick to answer. “I’d say ninety-nine percent of the time we get along. I don’t know who else I would rather do this with. We complement each other. Where Pete is really level-headed, I have my head in the stars a lot. I think I push him, and he grounds me. Do you think that’s fair?”
Pete smiles and nods: “That’s about right.”
The Zeno Mountain concept is rooted in the brothers’ mutual experience working, since their teens, in camps and other programs for children and adults with disabilities. They long envisioned something different, an approach that would challenge the standard camper-counselor, client-staff hierarchy. “That wasn’t our experience in our personal relationships with the people we were meeting,” Pete says. “They were our friends.” Acknowledging the need to be pragmatic, to address real needs, safety, and health concerns, he adds, “but that doesn’t have to take away from someone’s autonomy in a community.”
Katie Shepherd, UVM Green and Gold Professor of Education, is a neighbor and friend of the Halbys. She is also a Zeno Mountain volunteer, focused on horseback-riding programs, and has brought the brothers to campus to talk with special education classes. “I think what is really amazing about their approach—and I think they pull it off better than almost anyone I know—is that they are really invested in finding a space that is about community and friendship and not about ability or disability,” she says. “They really have a beautiful way of knowing what everyone’s strengths are, then they just go from there. There are so many opportunities at camp for people to be their very best selves. It sounds simple, but it is not simple. I think it really shifts how people see people with disabilities.”
Talk to one person at Zeno about his or her experience and others will line up to talk next. Invariably the message is about family, being around people they have grown to love.
Bill James of Marina del Rey, California, has been involved with Zeno for a dozen years. As he talks on the back patio behind the main house at the mountain, he stands next to the guy he calls “my good buddy Pete Halby,” their arms draped across one another’s shoulders. “I love to act. It makes me feel real good inside,” James says. Later at lunch, James takes a turn at the sharing time—a sort of open mic—to sing “Love Me Tender” to fellow longtime Zeno friend and Southern Californian Hillary Baum. There’s wild applause and hooting after James sings the last note. Will Halby steps up and says, “Fellas, that’s how it’s done.”
Joy Elaine, an artist from Portland, Oregon, is a newcomer in summer 2016. She found her way to Zeno via the film documentary about the camp, Becoming Bulletproof. “I fell in love with the inclusiveness. The value in every human being,” she says. “We all have something to bring and something to learn from one another.” Days into the camp, she says that, experiencing it in person, she is moved by both the vulnerability and the spirit of mutual care in this community.
Bobby Stoddard ’92 has been a constant at Zeno Mountain since the Halbys moved to Vermont. He’s our “Bob the Builder,” the brothers say. Working with treehouse guru B’fer Burton, Stoddard crafted the wheelchair accessible treehouses, which bunk many at the farm. He led the crew rebuilding the 1850s barn that was salvaged from Waterbury and moved to Zeno, reincarnated as performance/community space.
Like the Halbys, Stoddard’s work at Zeno blends with family. His nine-year-old daughter, Hazel, helps lead a yoga class on a summer morning, upping the fun factor by introducing a game where one tries to shake others out of their tree poses—winner is the last person standing. Dad-pride in his eyes, Stoddard says, “Hazel totally gets it. She gets what you do here. You just help. You just do stuff.”
For Will and Pete Halby themselves, this “just doing stuff” as it demands to be done is central to their enjoyment of the Zeno Mountain enterprise. It’s the balance of physical, hands-on work and mental, people work—days that might include four hours of cutting trees, building cabins, or fixing toilets with an afternoon of fundraising, grant writing, and blending the roster of campers for the next gathering. “It’s that mix that makes it the dream for us,” Pete says.
This decidedly democratic approach infuses the day-to-day of Zeno Mountain, essential to the formula that makes the whole endeavor work for all concerned. As Will Halby puts it, “If you elevate everybody’s expectations, people rise up and help each other in the simple ways that people need help. A big message we’ve been championing, particularly because of the movie, is the knowledge that we matter to each other is a basic human right. So often the disability community is sort of ‘taken care of.’ And the opportunity to be an important piece of a community, to be accounted for, and to know that people are depending on you is so often ignored.”
Will cites the experience of A.J. Murray, one of the stars of Becoming Bulletproof whose dreams of being an actor originally brought him to Zeno. “At the end of the film, A.J. says that the big takeaway from his experience is that he feels dignity, significance, and purpose. That is what his cells are craving—to matter.”
Across the continent and culturally worlds away from Vermont, Southern California is another foothold for Zeno Mountain. Will Halby lived in Venice Beach for years and built many friendships and connections in the entertainment business, which led to camps working with industry professionals in L.A. on annual short film projects.
In 2013, as Zeno Mountain created and filmed a western titled Bulletproof, filmmaker Michael Barnett documented the process for his own film, Becoming Bulletproof. The documentary piled up prizes on the film festival circuit, drew applause from audiences, and earned praise from critics and others in the movie business. Zeno Mountain actor Jeremy Vest is pictured above in a scene from the film.
“I will drag everyone I know to experience this film. Because I know they need to see this film and they will thank me for it afterwards,” actor Ted Danson says in a promo quote.
Morgan Spurlock’s Virgil Films production company got involved with Zeno Mountain through the distribution of Becoming Bulletproof, which is currently available on Showtime. The next Zeno film will begin shooting in spring 2017.